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The American soldier fought as bravely and as hard in Vietnam as in other war. The Vietnam War is a black mark on the United States not on the American soldier. This is just the background about what got us into that war and the start of the war.
April 29th was the 44th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Over 58,000 Americans died there, and over 300,000 wounded out of over two and half million who served in over 11 years of active war. The average infantryman in World War II in the South Pacific saw 40 days of actual combat in four years. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw 240 days of combat in one year, thanks to the helicopter.
The Vietnam War was fought by a lot of people who didn’t understand what was actually going on in Vietnam, including me, and history has revealed that neither did some of our national leaders. We thought we were simply trying to stop communist aggression and keep South Vietnam free. Some Vietnamese now say that it was a civil war, some say it was not that outside invaders caused the war. General Bruce Palmer Jr., who in Vietnam was a three star corps level commander said, “We didn’t understand the Vietnamese or the situation, or what kind of war it was. By the time we found out, it was too late.”
Vietnam had been ruled by one dynasty after another for thousands of years. In 1858 France invaded and conquered Vietnam making it a French colony. Ho Chi Minh, who was born in 1890 in central Vietnam as Ngyuen Sinh Cung, and later took the name Ho Chi Minh, which roughly translates to “one who has been enlightened”, went to France and for several years traveled the world working as a chef or an orderly. He actually worked in New York or Boston for a year or more. He became fascinated with communism and became a communist organizer in France. When the Japanese invaded Indochina in 1940 they kept the French puppet government in place. That is when Ho Chi Minh went back to Vietnam and organized the Viet Minh, which means “League for the Independence of Vietnam”. It was a collation of groups fighting the Japanese. The groups initially squabbled and fought among themselves, but the communists won by killing off their opponents. They opposed both Japanese and French occupation. Ho Chi Minh met with American OSS (forerunner of the CIA) agents providing intelligence information to the allies. When World War II ended in 1945, the Japanese left and Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam”, with himself as chairman. In the first national election in 1946 the Viet Minh won in Central and North Vietnam. In the south, French backed politicians formed the “Republic of Cochinchina”, and full scale war broke out between the Viet Minh and the French. Ho Chi Minh is reported to have told a Frenchman, “If I kill one of your men, and you kill 10 of mine I will still win”. The French brought a former Emperor Bao Dai back in the south with Ngo Dinh Diem as prime minister. That was the start of another Indochina War. I remember seeing newsreel films of the “Indochina War” at the Belle Theater. We weren’t involved in it so people didn’t pay that much attention to it. In 1950 Ho Chi Minh met with Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong in Moscow and got their pledges to provide training, weapons, ammunition, and equipment to the Viet Minh. The French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in March 1954, with over 2,000 killed, over 5,000 wounded, and almost 12,000 taken prisoner, of whom about half survived marches to prison camps.
The Geneva Convention of 1954 divided Vietnam in half at about the 17th parallel. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) ruled by Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) under Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon. The Soviet Union and China backed North Vietnam, and the United States and our allies backed South Vietnam. The accords of the Geneva Convention directed that a general election be held in July 1956 to unify the country and decide which government would run the country. That is also when the “Peoples Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam” (the Viet Cong) was created as the military arm of the National Liberation Front, whose goal was the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and the reunification of Vietnam. Many people who moved north after the country was divided were trained and sent back south to help the Viet Cong. In North Vietnam the Viet Minh ruled from a central government, instituted “land reform” and assassinated any who resisted. In South Vietnam there was a de-centralized, representative government, but in reality Ngo Dinh Diem ruled with an iron fist. The majority of the population was Buddhist, Diem was Catholic and oppressed the Buddha’s, and used the same tactics as the communists in eliminating any opposition.
President Harry Truman sent the first Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to Vietnam in 1950 to assist the French in their fight against the communist Viet Minh, but the French wouldn’t take advice from the Americans, and neither would they let us train the Vietnamese Army. After the French were defeated by the Viet Minh, Diem ask for help from the United States, but wouldn’t allow American military advisors into tactical units. He was afraid the Americans would gain control or influence over his military units. In 1955 there was an election in South Vietnam, rigged by Diem. He claimed more votes than there were registered voters and proclaimed himself President of South Vietnam. He surrounded himself with family and friends and ruled by command. He was not popular with the common Vietnamese people. When the Viet Minh were fighting the French they had distributed land to peasant farmers for helping them fight the French. Diem started taking that land in the south and giving it back to the large land owners, causing those who were losing their land to be more than willing to fight with the Viet Cong.
The US backed Diem in ignoring the requirement to have the 1956 elections, because Ho Chi Minh was more popular with the common people than Diem, and President Eisenhower didn’t want to just give the country to the communists. Diem made a state visit to the US in 1957, and was warmly received by President Eisenhower, who promised continued support, but urged Diem to lighten up on his governing style.
The Viet Cong continued to become stronger and more aggressive. In the summer of 1957 Viet Cong attacked the MAAG-Vietnam compound in Saigon wounding 13 Americans. The first “casualty” of the Vietnam War occurred in October of 1957, when Special Forces Captain Harry Cramer was killed in a training accident near Nha Trang. He was part of a Special Forces Mobil Training Team from Okinawa, which was training the South Vietnamese in counterinsurgency. By the end of that year 75 South Vietnamese officials had been kidnapped or assassinated by the Viet Cong. In 1959 Viet Cong attacked the MAAG compound in Bien Hoa, about 20 miles north of Saigon, killing two Americans and three Vietnamese. MAAG personnel then started carrying weapons. In 1960 the number of MAAG advisors increased to 685.
In 1959 the Viet Minh invaded Laos with 30,000 troops and built a logistics route through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, which became known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”.
Soon after John F Kennedy was sworn in as President in 1961, he sought the advice of retired General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, concerning Vietnam. MacArthur commanded the allied forces against the Japanese in the Pacific in World War II and was the commander in Korea for part of that war. General MacArthur’s advice was to not get into a land war in Asia. He said there was no end to Asian manpower. He told JFK that if we put a million American infantrymen into that continent we would still be outnumbered on every side.
The Kennedy administration and MAAG-Vietnam started developing a counterinsurgency plan, at the same time supporting an increase in the size of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) (South Vietnam Army). The number of advisers increased and Diem allowed US advisers to be at battalion level, actually advising combat troops.
President Kennedy sent several fact finding missions to Vietnam during 1961. Some recommended sending combat troops, while others argued against it. Special Forces was the only element of the military to have studied and trained in guerrilla warfare. US generals and admirals had no experience in unconventional warfare and believed that conventional military action could always win. At a meeting with top military brass in November 1961 the President berated them for dragging their feet in the counterinsurgency effort. He said, “I want you guys to get with it.” But the generals were products of World War II where the conventional army won. They did not believe in unconventional warfare and continued to train the South Vietnam Army as a conventional force.
At a meeting of the communist politburo in Hanoi in 1961 it was revealed that the National Liberation Front in the south had compiled statistics that between 1954 and 1960 Diem had killed over 77,000 and imprisoned over 270,000 political dissidents. At the end of 1961 there were an estimated 35,000 communist party members in South Vietnam and the Viet Cong controlled 20 percent of the 15 million population and influenced 40 percent. The Viet Cong controlled seven of 13 provinces in the Mekong Delta. There were 3205 US military personnel in South Vietnam.
Everything stepped up in Vietnam in 1962. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was formed, absorbing MAAG-Vietnam. General Paul D. Harkins was placed in command. Neither he nor his staff had any experience in counterinsurgency warfare. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) maintained operational control of Special Forces. Green Berets were training and leading CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) units formed around villages.
President Kennedy had seen serious action as a PT boat commander in the Pacific in World War II, and seemed to have a clearer understanding of what was happening in Vietnam than some military leaders. In his address to the graduating class of West Point in June 1962 he said, “This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin–war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him….It requires…a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.”
In October 1962 there was another event which shaped the course of the war. General Maxwell D Taylor was originally an Engineer officer then switched to Artillery. He was a Brigadier General, commanding the 82nd Airborne Division Artillery in May 1944 when the Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division, Major General William Lee, suffered a heart attack. Taylor was promoted to Major General and placed in command of the 101st. He retired, as Chief of Staff of the Army in 1959. He was a smart man, but also somewhat of a showman. After retiring from the Army he wrote a book titled “The Uncertain Trumpet”, which was highly critical of the Eisenhower administrations embracement of the Nuclear Age and ignoring conventional military forces. For a time, the Air Force with its strategic bombers, had a budget twice that of the Army. John Kennedy used Taylor’s book in his campaign for President, and Taylor became a close friend and advisor of the Kennedys’, in fact Taylor was the “Military Advisor” in the White House to the President, overshadowing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Then in October 1962 President Kennedy recalled Taylor to active duty and made him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Harkins had been an aide to Taylor.
In November 1962 Senator Mike Mansfield led a congressional fact finding delegation to Vietnam. They received an optimistic briefing from US Ambassador Nolting and General Harkins, but news reporters there told them a more pessimistic story. The Deputy Chief at the Embassy hinted that the news people were correct. There were then over 11,000 US ‘advisors’ in Vietnam.
Then in January 1963 the South Vietnamese were soundly defeated by the Viet Cong in a battle 40 miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong Delta. General Harkins called it a victory because the Viet Cong left the area. They did, after inflicting around 200 casualties on the South Vietnamese Army, killing three American advisors, and shooting down five helicopters. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr was appointed ambassador to South Vietnam replacing Ambassador Nolting. Viet Minh infiltration from the north increased and tensions within South Vietnam increased. South Vietnam government troops opened fire on a group of protesting monks killing nine. The Diem government started raiding Buddhist monasteries. Seventy percent of South Vietnam people were Buddha’s, but Diem was Catholic. Finally a Buddhist monk burned himself to death at a busy intersection in Saigon. It was captured on film and published worldwide.
General Harkins continued to send optimistic reports to Washington, then in October the State Department issued a classified Secret report that we were doing little more than holding our own in Vietnam, which infuriated the Department of Defense. Then on October 11th 1963 President Kennedy issued National Security Action Memorandum 263, which directed that 1,000 US military personnel be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of the year, and that all be withdrawn by the end of 1965. The announcement and the start of the withdrawal were to be initiated after the November 1964 elections.
On November 2nd 1963 Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were killed in a successful coup by South Vietnamese generals. On November 22nd President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas. The official US policy on that day was to get out of Vietnam by the end of 1965. Newly sworn in President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that he “would not loose in Vietnam”. By the end of 1963, Robert F McNamara the Secretary of Defense had gone from being very optimistic about Vietnam to being pessimistic. The US had about 16,000 military in Vietnam and 132 had been killed that year.
The new President of South Vietnam, Duong Van Minh, didn’t want American advisors in the rural countryside. He said they would be perceived as more imperialistic than the French. French President Charles de Gaulle, and others recommended neutralization of South Vietnam. Most of President Johnson’s advisors recommended against it because a neutral South Vietnam would result in a communist takeover, weaken the US position in Asia and cause problems for the Democratic Party.
General Vo Nguyen Giap commanded the Viet Minh military from fighting the Japanese to defeating the French, constructing the Ho Chi Minh trail, the “Tet Offensive” to the fall of Saigon and ouster of American forces. He is now considered, by much of the military world as one of if not the most brilliant military strategists and logisticians of the 20th Century. He and Ho Chi Minh were considered “moderates” by much of the communist party. On January 20th 1964 one of the most significant occurrences of the war was when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of North Vietnam issued Resolution Number 9, which called for all-out war on South Vietnam to defeat it before the US could send large numbers of combat troops there. It was over the objections of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap and it called for the purge of party members who emphasized anything other than victory in South Vietnam. It was when the Communist Party hard-liners actually took control of the Communist Party and North Vietnam. It also called for the expansion of diplomacy to “gain the sympathy of anti-war groups in the United States and around the world.
On January 30th 1964 there was another coup, Duong Van Minh was out, this time bloodless, and Nguyen Khanh was in, most people in the know didn’t think it would make much difference in the government or the army of South Vietnam. In March 1964, Secretary of Defense McNamara visited Vietnam and upon returning wrote a memo to the President that 40 percent of Vietnam was controlled by the Viet Cong, the Khanh government was ineffective, the South Vietnam Army pathetic, and the Americans there were frustrated. He recommended the US finance a 50,000 man increase in the South Vietnamese Army, and that the US Air Force be prepared to start bombing North Vietnam. President Johnson approved the memo and directed its implementation. In May after a conversation with Senator Richard Russell, President Johnson called National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and said; “I don’t think it [South Vietnam] is worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess I ever saw. …I just don’t know what to do.”……..
In June 1964 General Harkins was replaced by General William C Westmoreland as commander of MACV, over the objections of many army officers who knew Westmoreland. When the announcement was made, an army brigadier general went to the Secretary of the Army to protest, saying that Westmoreland was all show, “spit and polish”, but the decision had already been made. Westmoreland had worked for Maxwell Taylor over the years and was his pick. Thomas E. Ricks wrote in “The Generals” that many generals considered Westmoreland all show and not that smart. In July 1964 Maxwell Taylor retired again and was appointed US Ambassador to South Vietnam, in effect making him “in charge” in South Vietnam.
On August 2nd 1964 the US Navy Destroyer “Maddox” was performing an +intelligence gathering patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, which is the northern part of the South China Sea, bordering North Vietnam and the southern part of China. It was attacked by three North Vietnamese Navy Torpedo Boats. Four North Vietnamese sailors were killed and six wounded with no US casualties. The US claimed that the “Maddox” was engaged in peaceful surveillance, but the South Vietnamese Army was conducting guerilla operations on nearby islands. Two days later destroyers “Maddox” and “C Turner Joy” again reported that they were under fire. Evidence over the years has shown that probably didn’t happen. President Johnson told congress that he was ordering retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam. On the 5th planes from our aircraft carriers flew 64 sorties against North Vietnam, two of those planes were shot down, with one pilot killed and one taken prisoner of war. Also, that day China ordered its forces on the North Vietnamese border to a full state of readiness, sent 51 Mig fighter planes to North Vietnam and offered to train the pilots and build sanctuary airfields for those planes and pilots in southern China. In recent years China admitted that it also sent 320,000 troops to Vietnam in the early and mid-60s. Also, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Premier Alexei Kosygin was visiting Hanoi during the air strikes, causing the USSR to send surface-to-air missiles, jet fighter planes, technical support, and military advisors to North Vietnam.
On August 10th 1964 the US Congress voted on the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution”, which basically gave the President a “free hand” to use whatever force necessary in Vietnam. The House of Representatives voted 416 – 0, and the Senate 88 – 2. Meanwhile Khanh in South Vietnam had declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution, which triggered large demonstrations.
Tension and Viet Cong aggression continued to escalate, then on November 20th 1964 the first regular North Vietnam Army units, three regiments, started down the Ho Chi Minh trail for South Vietnam.
In February 1965 the Viet Cong attacked Pleiku Airbase killing 8 Americans, wounding 128, and damaging or destroying 24 aircraft. They also blew up a hotel in Qui Nhon which was used as US enlisted barracks, killing 23 Americans. General Westmoreland requested two battalions of US Marines to protect the air base at Da Nang. Another coup was attempted but failed by a South Vietnamese general who was later revealed to be a communist agent, but Khanh left Vietnam, leaving South Vietnamese Air Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky in charge in South Vietnam.
Democrat Senator Frank Church spoke on the Senate Floor against further US involvement in the Vietnam War. He was supported by several prominent Democrat Senators, but former President Eisenhower advised President Johnson not to negotiate from weakness.
On March 25th 1965 the first “Teach in” (forum) to protest the Vietnam War was held at the University of Michigan, 3,500 people attended. Also on that day, China announced that it would, “send its personnel to fight together with the Vietnamese people to annihilate the American aggressors”.
General Westmoreland reported to Washington that there was no longer an effective chain of command in the South Vietnam Armed Forces. By the end of March 1965 about 5,000 Marines were at Da Nang.
On April 17th 1965 about 20,000 people gathered in Washington, DC in the first large protest against the war. There was, at that time, about 33,000 US military in Vietnam.
In May 1965 the 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived at Bien Hoa. In July they made a search and destroy sweep through Zone D north of Saigon. They suffered 10 killed and 42 wounded. Viet Cong casualties were inflated. The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division arrived in July 1965, and Maxwell Taylor resigned as Ambassador because he did not agree with deployment of US ground combat troops in Vietnam. He was replaced by Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr for his second term as ambassador. Also the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division arrived. In August Maxwell Taylor, now an adviser to President Johnson, told the President: “By the end of 1965, the North Vietnamese offensive will be bloodied and defeated without having achieved major gains.” North Vietnam would be forced to change its strategy.” In September the first full US Army division, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) arrived.
In October the 32nd and 33rd regiments of the North Vietnamese Army arrived in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam and hid their base camps in the mountains around the Ia Drang River. The 32nd Regiment attacked a nearby Special Forces camp at Plei Me. The camp consisted of a 12 man Special Forces Team, a 14 man South Vietnamese Special Forces Team and about 400 CIDG soldiers. The battle went on for eight days and the 32nd withdrew hoping to lure the South Vietnamese Army in Pleiku into an ambush set up by the newly arrived 66th Regiment, but the 66th Regiment got ambushed themselves – by one US platoon. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) John B Stockton, commander of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry was ordered to scout a particular trail alongside the Ia Drang River close to the Cambodian border. One platoon of about 40 infantry soldiers discovered a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion of about 700 moving along a trail and set up an ambush. They fired one magazine of ammo into the NVA battalion, then turned and “ran like hell”, with a very angry NVA battalion after them. They reached the rest of the company and fought back two attacks by the NVA battalion. The company commander radioed LTC Stockton for reinforcements. LTC Stockton radioed his boss Brigadier General Richard Knowles for permission to send in another company. His request was denied, but Stockton squawked, squealed, and whistled into his radio handset and waved the next company onto the helicopters. That was the first night helicopter assault, even the helicopter crews got out of their birds and joined the fight, but they turned the NVA back and got all their troops back to base camp. LTC Stockton was relieved of his command and sent to a desk job in Saigon, knowing that he had probably saved the lives of at least 100 of his men.
As a result of the 9th Cav action, LTC Hal Moore was ordered to take his 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry on a search and destroy mission in the Ia Drang River Valley to search for a possible NVA Regiment. He did an aerial reconnaissance and selected a football field size landing zone at the base of the mountains. On November 14th 1965 he had to shuttle his understrength 450 man battalion into the landing zone. There was not one NVA Regiment, but three within walking distance of that landing zone. For the next four days and three nights that battalion and the reinforcements flown in under fire engaged in the most brutal close combat, sometimes hand to hand, one can imagine. Up to that time there had been about 1,100 US personnel killed in Vietnam. By the time both sides withdrew on November 17th, 234 Americans were killed and over 250 wounded. That battle is very realistically portrayed in the book “We were Soldiers – and Young”, by Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, and the movie “We were Soldiers”
Late in the day on the 18th BG Knowles, the Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division called a news conference in his tent. He told dozens of reporters that it was just a “meeting engagement” and that casualties were light. Reporter Joe Galloway, who had been with LTC Hal Moore through the entire battle, stood and said; “That bullshit sir and you know it.” The tent erupted into angry shouting.
In Washington President Johnson told Defense Secretary McNamara, who was in Europe, to come home by way of Vietnam and find out what happened at Ia Drang. McNamara visited with Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, then went to An Khe the 1st Cav division headquarters. He spent time with Major General Harry W.O. Kinnard, the Division Commander, and with LTC Hal Moore. On the flight home he wrote a Top Secret memo to President Johnson. The memo said basically that we either get out of Vietnam now or give General Westmoreland the 200,000 additional troops he is asking for, which will mean 500,000 by 1967, and Americans will be dying at the rate of a thousand a month (it was actually 3,000 a month in 1968). He added that all this would accomplish would be a military stalemate at a much higher level of violence.
On December 15th 1965 President Johnson’s council of “wise old men” met at the White House to decide what to do about Vietnam. When the President walked into the room he was holding McNamara’s memo, he said; “You mean to tell me no matter what I do I can’t win in Vietnam?” McNamara nodded yes. They talked for two days and decided to continue the war.